I’ve read a lot of cover letters throughout my career. When I was a fellowship program manager, I reviewed them in consideration for more than 60 open positions each year. So I saw it all–the good, the bad, and the standout examples that I can still remember.
As a result, I’ve become the go-to friend when people need feedback on their job applications. Based on my own experience putting people in the “yes” (and “no”) pile, I’m able to give these cover letters a quick scan and immediately identify what’ll turn a hiring manager off.
While I can’t give you insight into every person’s head who’ll be reading your materials, I can share with you the feedback that I give my own loved ones.
1. The Basics
First things first, I skim the document for anything that could be disqualifying. That includes typos, a “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern” salutation, or a vibe so non-specific that it reeks of find-replace. I know it seems harsh, but when a hiring manager sees any one of these things, she reads it as, “I didn’t take my time with this, and I don’t really care about working here.” So she’s likely to pass.
Another thing I look for in this initial read-through is tone. Even if you’re applying to your dream company, you don’t want to come off like you think someone entertaining your candidacy is the same as him offering you water at the end of a lengthy hike. You don’t need to thank the hiring manager so incredibly much for reading your application–that’s his job. If you align considering your application with the biggest favor ever, you’ll make the other person think it’s because you’re desperate.
So, skip effusive thanks and demonstrate genuine interest by writing a cover letter that connects the dots between your experience and the requirements of the position. Telling the reader what you’ve accomplished and how it directly translates to meeting the company’s needs is always a better use of space than gushing.
2. The Opening Sentence
If your first line reads: “I am writing to apply for [job] at [company],” I will delete it and suggest a swap every time. (Yes, every single time.) When a hiring manager sees that, she won’t think, “How thoughtful of the applicant to remind me what I’m reading!” Her reaction will be much closer to, “boring,” “meh,” or even “next!”
Compare it to one of these statements:
I’ve wanted to work in education ever since my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dorchester, helped me discover a love of reading.
My approach to management is simple: I strive to be the kind of leader I’d want to work for.
In my three years at [prior company], I increased our average quarterly sales by [percentage].
See how these examples make you want to keep reading? That’s half the battle right there. Additionally, it makes you memorable, which’ll help when you’re competing against a sea of applicants.
To try it out for yourself, pick a jumping-off point. It could be something about you or an aspect of the job description that you’re really drawn to. Then, open a blank document and just free-write (translation: write whatever comes to mind) for 10 minutes. Some of the sentences you come up with will sound embarrassing or lame: That’s fine–no one has to see those! Look for the sentence that’s most engaging and see how it reads as the opening line for your cover letter.
3. The Examples
Most often, people send me just their cover letter and resume, so I don’t have the benefit of reviewing the position description. And yet, whenever a letter follows the format of “I am skilled at [skill], [skill], [skill], as evidenced by my time at [place].” Or “You’re looking for [skill], and I am a talented [skill], ” I could pretty much re-create it. Surprise: that’s actually not a good thing.
Again, the goal isn’t just to show you’re qualified: It’s to make the case that you’re more qualified than all the other applicants. You want to make clear what distinguishes you, so the hiring manager can see why you’re worth following up with to learn more. And–again–you want to be memorable.
If you write a laundry list, it’ll blend into every other submission formatted the same way. So, just like you went with a unique opener, do the same with your examples. Sure, you might still include lists of skills, but break those up with anecdotes or splashes of personality.
Here’s a real, two-line excerpt from a cover letter I’ve written before:
If I’m in a conference room and the video isn’t working, I’m not the sort to simply call IT and wait. I’ll also (gracefully) crawl under the table, and check that everything is properly plugged in.
A couple lines like this will not only lighten up your letter, but also highlight your soft skills. I got the point across that I’m a take-charge problem solver, without saying, “I’m a take-charge problem solver.” Plus the “(gracefully)” shows that I don’t take myself too seriously–even in a job application. If your submission follows the same list-type format all the way through, see if you can’t pepper in an example or anecdote that’ll add some personality.
You want your cover letter to stand out for all the right reasons. So, before you click submit, take a few minutes to make sure you’re putting your best (and most memorable) foot forward.
Related Video: This Is What People Really Think Of Your Resumé
This article originally appeared on The Daily Muse and is reprinted with permission.
One of the the most important aspects of reintegrating back into society after a felony conviction is to obtain gainful employment. However, the stigma that follows many former offenders makes it difficult to accomplish this seemingly simple task. Even if you have the right combination of experience and skill, you still may have a difficult time getting your foot in the door. However, a well-crafted cover letter may help employers see past your old life and place you on equal footing with other job seekers.
1. Type your name, address, phone number and email address at the top of the page. This header usually goes on the right side, but you can center it if you prefer.
2. Place the salutation four lines under your contact information. Address the hiring manager by name, if possible. If no name was included on the job ad and you didn't have any luck contacting to employer for that information, use the phrase "Dear Hiring Manager."
3. Tell the reader the position you are inquiring about in the first section. If someone told you about the opportunity, give their name as well as their relationship to you and the employer. This is beneficial because that person can vouch for your rehabilitation, progress and character.
4. Describe your work, school and volunteer experience in the second paragraph. Draw from relevant examples to show how your knowledge and experience make you an excellent candidate for the job. Include experience you gained while incarcerated, but do not mention where you received it until the next paragraph. This helps decrease the chances of the employer writing you off before your explanation.
5. Introduce your felony in the first sentence of the next section. Starting with a statement such as, "In spite of my skills, experience and accomplishments, I experienced a lapse of judgment that led to a felony conviction for (crime)," will serve as an appropriate segue that separates the person you are now from your former mistakes.
6. Explain the conviction in the next one to three sentences. You do not have to include details, simply tell the employer what you did and when. You may include a reason, but only if it shows extreme circumstances that are not likely to occur again. Do not profess your innocence or bash the legal system.
7. Describe the steps you have taken to regain your position as an upstanding member of society in the next couple sentences. Include courses you completed, certificates you received, volunteer experience and counseling you participated in during and after your incarceration.
8. State your eagerness to continue the hiring process in the final paragraph. Reiterate how you can utilize your best skills to benefit the company in one or two sentences. Invite the reader to get in contact with you using the information at the top of the letter to discuss your situation or schedule an interview. Type your name four lines below the last section.
About the Author
Lauren Treadwell studied finance at Western Governors University and is an associate of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. Treadwell provides content to a number of prominent organizations, including Wise Bread, FindLaw and Discover Financial. As a high school student, she offered financial literacy lessons to fellow students.
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